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Leave My Game Shows Alone

I understand completely why networks, especially in desperate, post-strike scramble mode, would be eager to revive classic primetime game shows that are inexpensive to produce and, given their familiarity factor, easy to promote.

What I don't understand is why the networks and the producers of these shows seem so annoyingly insistent upon reinventing them. While the ratings for a couple of these remakes have been pretty good, the numbers could have been even better if there had been less fiddling with formats.

Take NBC's Celebrity Family Feud—please. Every previous incarnation of this game, whether or not the host has been kiss-crazy, has been the same. Two teams of players square off to try and guess how sample respondents replied to various poll questions. No matter how funny the questions, or how absurd the category, players took the game seriously, and tried to answer correctly.

Yet in Celebrity Family Feud, even though the players are representing, and trying to raise money for, their favorite charities, they aren't playing to the best of their abilities. Many times, they aren't even playing as themselves, but as the characters they play on television.

One recent episode featured, as one team, cast members from NBC's own My Name Is Earl. But the players were playing in character, so it wasn't Jason Lee who was answering. It was Earl. And the answers were appropriately stupid.

Appropriate for the characters, that is, but not for Family Feud, and especially not when you're playing for charity. To the category “Something you wear that hurts,” Jaime Pressly, as her trailer-trash alter ego Joy, responded, “Nipple clamps.” Survey said…zero matches. Big surprise there.

Similarly, the new CBS primetime incarnation of Million Dollar Password messes things up, though less egregiously. The central charm of the show—mixing and matching everyday people with celebrities in verbal battles to identify words using other one-word clues—remains intact. And the lightning round, presented as it is in the 2008 version, is even more dynamic and exciting.

Yet one central strategic element of the old, classic Password has been destroyed. It used to be that teams alternated clues and responses, so that if the team going first didn't nail the answer right out of the box, the second team had a great chance to build on that exchange and provide the correct answer instead.

In the new Million Dollar Password, each team plays its round uninterrupted, challenged only by the clock. That makes it much easier for someone to throw clues, and much, much easier to amass a higher total of correct answers. It also, I argue, makes for a much less interesting game.

But does it matter? In the Nielsen ratings, NBC's Celebrity Family Feud has leveled off just above the 7-million range of total viewers. That may not sound like much, but it was strong enough in mid-July to rank the program 12th for the week among all primetime shows, even though it was up against ABC's more potent (and, perhaps not coincidentally, more repugnant) Wipeout. Demographically, it scored 1.8 million viewers age 18-49 for a recent episode, about half as many as watched Wipeout.

Million Dollar Password has performed even better—up to 8.5 million overall viewers in mid-July, and, like Celebrity Family Feud, placing in the Top 20 among all primetime programs for the week. Who's to say, though, that these shows wouldn't be performing even better if the games themselves were more like the versions of old?

Better than both of them, in ratings and as a true representation of previous versions, is another CBS primetime game show, The Price Is Right Million Dollar Spectacular. Drew Carey, taking over for Bob Barker, has been fabulous, and neither he nor the show's producers, to this point, have messed with the simple, hokey, appealing and, yes, nostalgic nature of the game. It wasn't broke—and for once, TV didn't try to fix it.

The rumor is out there, though, that The Price Is Right will undergo a massive overhaul next season. Say it ain't true, Drew. Your show is one of the few that continue to get it right, no matter what date is on the calendar.